The majority of verses where Christians get the erroneous concept of ascent to heaven immediately after death were dealt with in my last post. I will make mention of the last two I know of here and then make the case for a more accurate, biblical view of the believer’s journey after death.
Be With Christ
“But I am constrained between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for this is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.” Philippians 1:23-24
The argument that comes with this verse usually goes something like this: “Christ is in heaven, so we must go to heaven when we die since departing means that we go to be with Christ.” This sort of argumentation is distorted with the preconception that believers go to heaven when they die, and when looked at from an objective point of view in context of the whole Bible, it actually refers to something much deeper.
“And behold, I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age.” Matthew 28:20b
“If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, there You are.” Ps. 139:8
I hope these verses are enough to show that Philippians 1:23 can’t refer to a physical place, such as heaven. The Lord is with us currently, and He is omnipresent. If that verse refers to our going to a place physically with the Lord, then Paul must be saying that as of right now He is not with Christ, which is erroneous.
A more accurate interpretation would be that Paul is talking about being with the Lord in a higher degree. That is why I included the next verse, for it mentions “the flesh,” which is in direct opposition to our being with the Lord (Gal. 5:17). We struggle today to commune with the Lord, for our flesh battles against our spirit, but the putting off of the flesh will result in a much higher degree of fellowship with our Lord¹.
Led Captive Those Taken Captive
“Therefore the Scripture says, ‘Having ascended to the height, He led captive those taken captive and gave gifts to men.’ (Now this, ‘He ascended,’ what is it except that He also descended into the lower parts of the earth?” Ephesians 4:8-9
Among the very few who have actually considered where the biblical ground is for believers’ ascent to heaven immediately after death in contrast to the Old Testament saints who descended to Sheol, this verse is a favorite. Popularized by C.I. Scofield, there is an interpretation to this verse that supposedly shows that Christ descended to Paradise in Hades and then transferred such to heaven in His ascension².
This few, though more complex and a better account than most schools of interpretation can give, is still veiled by the preconception of heaven as believers’ destiny. There are three problems with this view, exposed by the following verses:
“You have ascended on high; You have led captive those taken captive; You have received gifts among men, even the rebellious ones also, that Jehovah God may dwell among them.” Ps. 68:18
“And He Himself gave some as apostles and some as prophets and some as evangelists and some as shepherds and teachers” Ephesians 4:11
“Men, brothers, I can say to you plainly concerning the patriarch David that he both deceased and was buried, and his tomb is among us until this day.” Acts 2:29 (see vv. 22-36 for full context)
Either Paul misquoted the Psalm above as “the Scripture” in Eph. 4:8 or the changing of “received” to “gave” is intentional (which we must believe since all Scripture is God-breathed). This verse does not refer to the Lord changing the locality of Old Testament saints, but rather refers to Him releasing all of us believers who were once enslaved. We were taken captive by Satan, but were released to the captivity of God! Hallelujah!
These gifts, which are the captives themselves according to verse 11, were received by God in Psalm 68 and then given to men in Ephesians 4. The gifts are the apostles, prophets, etc. that were given for the perfecting of the saints in verse 12. This has nothing to do with a change in residence of Old Testament saints.
If it did refer to such a transfer, then poor David must have been left behind according to Acts 2. This is erroneous and must be rejected.
Our Current Position
Unfortunately, believers today are infatuated with heaven and going to a “better place” when they die, while they completely miss the glorious salvation that our Lord is offering us TODAY.
“Even when we were dead in offenses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) and raised us up together with Him and seated us together with Him in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus” Ephesians 2:5-6
“To know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” Philippians 3:10
“Therefore we do not lose heart; but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” 2 Corinthians 4:16
“For if we, being enemies, were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more we will be saved in His life, having been reconciled” Romans 5:10
We must stop looking for a future place and start looking at the present Christ. He has raised us up to the heavenlies already that we might enjoy salvation on earth today. This salvation is not just our justification by grace through faith that is thoroughly understood among protestants, but also includes the daily renewal of our inner man and the putting to death of our flesh, which is the “much more” salvation in Romans 5:10.
He desires to transform us TODAY and bring us to know the power of His resurrection TODAY, but Christians are veiled by a materialistic hope of a future mansion and a natural desire to be reunited with loved ones. God has a desire and goal for us TODAY! Our response and cooperation with this goal is of grave importance.
Resurrection from the Dead
“For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each one in his own order: the first fruits, Christ; then those who are Christ’s at His coming” 1 Corinthians 15:22-23
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day.” John 11:24
“Because the Lord Himself, with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.”
See also Dan. 12:2; Acts 24:15; Jn. 5:29; Matt. 25:6; 1 Cor. 15:52
This is the Bible’s description of the believers’ hope. Our hope is to be resurrected from the dead, not to ascend to heaven immediately after death. After death, those in Christ descend to Paradise in Hades with all the saints, to rest and await the resurrection from the dead.
This is not the heretical doctrine of purgatory, in which believers continue laboring in hope of finishing the work needed to get to heaven. The life we live on earth determines what our life will be like in the resurrection (which is a resurrection to the earth where the Lord will establish His kingdom (Rev. 20:4-6)). The intermediate state is a state of rest.
Those who die apart from Christ descend to torment in Hades and await the resurrection to the final judgement to face the second death. (“Hades” is explained in my previous post. See link above.)
Heaven: the Scheme of the Enemy
This is what the Bible presents. I hope that all of the Lord’s children would consider this topic sincerely. What better stratagem of the devil is there than to veil God’s saints from His Christ with a physical place (And who on earth decided that heaven is physical?)? The epistles make clear that the goal of believers is Christ, both a gaining of Him and a being conformed to His very image (Phil. 3:8; Rm. 8:28; 2 Cor. 3:18). Satan has turned the eyes of the believers from this wonderful Person to an temporal place (c.f. Heb. 12:2). Heaven will pass away (Heb. 1:10-11), but the Word, Christ, shall by no means pass away (Jn. 1:1, 14; Matt. 24:35; Is. 40:8; 1 Pet. 1:25; Jn. 12:34).
¹ http://biblehub.com/commentaries/philippians/1-23.htm ² Scofield Reference Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 1945. (pg. 1098-1099)